The story of Pocahontas has all the elements of a good drama: danger, the threat of great cruelty, bravery, a hint of romance and prevailing mercy. Who doesn’t like to imagine a beautiful young Native American princess shielding a handsome English soldier just as a warrior’s club is raised to deliver a deadly blow?
Modern entertainment is often spun from the fibers of a tangled history. It is fascinating to look at some of the stories and films that we consider to be a part of modern civilization only to realize they have origins other than what we may think. For example, the Walt Disney Company frequently turns to historic tales as inspiration for their world-renowned children’s films. They certainly recognized the appeal of Pocahontas’ tale, which was made into the 1995 animated film Pocahontas. The film is based on English colonist John Smith’s account of his adventures with Pocahontas’ tribe, the Powhatan, who lived in what is now Virginia, and the capture that led to her successful pleading for his life from her father, the chief. Most people know that the film is highly fictionalized, but after digging deeper into the criticism surrounding the Disney classic, its audiences will find that even the “historical account” on which it is based is most likely fiction as well.
This post by Stephanie Castellano will explore the true story behind Pocahontas. Because the Disney franchise has captured a view of history uniquely theirs, AntiquityNOW has decided to delve into the antecedents of Disney’s historical renderings to uncover the true stories that are both delighting and shall we say, sometimes misleading, our popular imaginings. Keep a lookout for more posts that will reveal surprising links between Disney animated classics and their historical provenance.
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John Smith, as a leader of the first permanent English settlement in North America in the early 1600s, figures prominently in American history. Yet while the role he played in the colonization of the New World was undoubtedly valuable, some of his reports from that time have raised the eyebrows of historians for centuries. In fact, many historians claim that he “borrowed” the story of Pocahontas from a similar event that occurred a century earlier, in Florida.
The “Florida Pocahontas” tale is even more thrilling than the Disney film. It begins with the unspeakable cruelty of a Spanish explorer, a dangerous trick played by local Indians, the vengeful death sentence doled out to a young Spanish soldier named Juan Ortiz and his timely rescue by the Indian chief’s daughter… but it doesn’t end there. Uleleh, the Indian princess, saved the soldier’s life twice during his captivity.
Juan Ortiz, upon his return to the Spanish, recounted his ordeal to explorer Hernando DeSoto. Ortiz’s story was set in writing by one of DeSoto’s men, translated into English and published in London (where John Smith supposedly read it) and included in several later accounts of DeSoto’s adventures in Florida. While the details have been blurred by multiple renderings of the story and cannot be verified, many historians consider the story more authentic than that of Pocahontas.
Juan Ortiz was the 18-year-old son of a Sevillan nobleman. He’d joined an expedition of 600 men who landed in 1528 near what is now Tampa Bay in Florida. The expedition was led by explorer Panfilo de Narvaez, who proved himself a cruel enemy to the local Tocobaga Indians. In one encounter with the tribe, Narvaez had the chief’s mother thrown to a pack of wild dogs. Because the chief accused one of the Spaniards of raping an Indian girl, Narvaez retaliated by having the chief’s nose cut off. The chief, whose name appears in some records as Ucita, in others as Hirrihigua, swore to take revenge against Narvaez.
Narvaez’s men had nearly all succumbed to death by illness, starvation, shipwreck or Indian attacks when Juan Ortiz was sent back to Havana with dispatches for Narvaez’s wife. When Ortiz returned to Tampa Bay, he found that Narvaez had left to march into the land’s interior. Indians on shore claimed to have a letter from Narvaez for Ortiz and the other men, if they would come ashore to retrieve it. They had posted a piece of paper, supposedly the letter, on a reed stuck in the beach. The Spaniards, wary of the Indians, asked that they come to the ship and deliver the letter. A deal was worked out in which three Indians came onboard to be held as collateral while the Spaniards retrieved the letter from the beach.
Ortiz and three other sailors came ashore. But as soon as they stepped on the beach, the Indian hostages broke free and jumped overboard. Ortiz and the others were seized by the Indians on shore, while several more natives who had been concealed in the foliage rushed out. The Spaniards onboard, seeing the ambush, didn’t attempt a rescue. Instead, they promptly sailed away, leaving the soldiers to their fate.
Once the soldiers were in Hirrihigua’s grasp, the chief couldn’t resist a game of cat-and-mouse. Ortiz’s comrades were used as target practice, forced to run until the Indians felled them all with arrows. Ortiz, however, was reserved for an even worse fate – a method of torture the Indians called “barbacoa,” which involved stringing the victim over a slow-burning fire and roasting him to death. Hirrihigua had selected this method because he believed Ortiz to be Narvaez’s son.
Ortiz was tied over the fire and the torture had commenced before Uleleh, Hirrihigua’s teenage daughter, intervened. According to Fidalgo de Elvas, the Spaniard whose written account was reproduced four centuries later in The Florida Review, Uleleh didn’t lose her head when she witnessed the horrific scene. Instead, she had single strategic remark for her father: “Though one Christian, she said, might do no good, certainly he could do no harm, and it would be an honor to have one for captive.” Other accounts say that Uleleh and other women in the tribe couldn’t stand Ortiz’s screams and rushed forward to plead for his life.
Hirrihigua allowed himself to be persuaded, but the desire for revenge was not completely rooted out of him. Ortiz was kept as a slave, forced to do menial and dangerous tasks for the tribe. One of these was to guard the village cemetery, where it was customary for the Indians to place their dead, exposed, upon biers. The bodies were in constant danger of being dragged off by wild animals. If Ortiz allowed this to happen, he would be put to death the following day.
One night, a panther attempted to drag off the body of a child. Stumbling after the panther in the dark, Ortiz managed to shoot it straight through the heart, an act which won him the Indians’ admiration. Hirrihigua’s regard, however, was fleeting: Shortly afterward he decided to sacrifice Ortiz at the tribe’s next festival.
Once again Uleleh rescued Ortiz in the nick of time. She slipped away one night to the cemetery where Ortiz stood guard and told him of her father’s plans. His best chance, she said, would be to flee to a neighboring tribe, the Casique, which was sure to take him in. According to F.P. Fleming, who recounted the story for the Florida Historical Society in 1908, Juan Ortiz was so taken with the princess’s dedication to his protection that he proposed to her on the spot. “But the dusky maiden was not slow to inform her white suitor that her kindness to him was not the inspiration of love,” Fleming wrote, “but pity for his sad condition, that she was already betrothed to a neighboring Casique, Mocoso, to whose protection she was about to recommend him.” Interestingly, an earlier account of the tale by Theodore Irving, said to be based on sources from members of DeSoto’s expedition, makes no mention of a proposal. Uleleh gave Ortiz her girdle as a token to guarantee his welcome into Mocoso’s tribe (another detail that did not find its way into Irving’s report), and lent him a guide to show him the way by night. Ortiz managed to escape successfully, and was offered refuge with the other village.
When Hirrihigua found that Ortiz had escaped, he demanded his return, but Mocoso refused. According to Irving, Mocoso considered himself honor-bound to protect Ortiz – but it ultimately cost him his marriage with Uleleh, whom “he tenderly loved.” Juan Ortiz lived with the Casique for several years before he encountered a band of Spanish soldiers and was allowed to rejoin his countrymen – ensuring that his story, misappropriated though it may have been by John Smith and overlooked centuries later by a major film studio, still survives.
Stay tuned for our next exploration of a Disney film with an ancient past, Frozen!
Author: Stephanie Castellano lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia, a historic town just across the river from Washington, DC. She is a writer and editor for a local professional association, and volunteers at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. She loves discovering anecdotes and little-known stories from our collective past that have been forgotten in the sweep of grander events, and writing about them to bring the people and places involved back to life.